Maruo Diaz

MLS Cup Playoffs: Taking stock after leg 1 of conference semis

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We’re halfway to the conference finals portion of the 2015 MLS Cup Playoffs following the playing of four conference semifinals first legs on Sunday.

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As things stand, I’m feeling really good about my final four prediction of the New York Red Bulls, Montreal Impact, FC Dallas and the Portland Timbers. That said, there’s still a lot of soccer to be played before I’m proven right (or right), so let’s talk about who’s feeling good ahead of Sunday’s second legs.

New York Red Bulls 1-0 D.C. UnitedFIRST LEG RECAP

The only side to win any away from home in their respective first leg, the Red Bulls, who already have the Supporters’ Shield in the bag, are sitting pretty ahead of Sunday’s second leg at Red Bull Arena. The worry is still that they lack the guy to score the big goals in a high-scoring or high-pressure game — Dax McCarty scored the lone goal on Sunday — but they’re so incredibly solid through the spine that they limit chances better than perhaps any team in the league.

On the other side, the 2015 season has lasted roughly three months too long for the 2015 edition of United, which is a very kind way of saying they’re old, tired and crawling over the finish line that is to be the conclusion of their season. Dreadful set-piece defending, which must be the no. 1 calling card of a team playing “Benny (Olsen) ball,” seemed the surest sign there’s just no gas — or fight — left in the tank for 2015. Red Bulls should advance with a single goal on Sunday.

[ MORE: Jason Kreis fired after just one season at New York City FC ]

Columbus Crew SC 1-2 Montreal ImpactFIRST LEG RECAP

If you’re buying into the “Impact are a one-man team” narrative, that Didier Drogba is the only thing they have going for them and can only win when he scores three goals a game, you’re sorely mistaken. 36-year-old Patrice Bernier rolled back the clock last week, scoring two goals and setting up another between the Impact’s knockout round and first leg triumphs. They’re also incredibly tough to beat because they don’t beat themselves (i.e. turn the ball over in midfield), which curtailed Crew SC’s desire to get out and run in the first leg.

So much of what Crew SC have done this year is dependent upon turning opponents over in the middle third and being the quicker side to react. They can overwhelm the very best defensive units with wave after wave of Ethan Finlay, Federico Higuain, Justin Meram and 22-goalscorer Kei Kamara. To overcome their first-leg deficit — that early away goal was huge — they’ll need to create more than six chances in the second leg.

[ MORE: Gerrard “wasn’t aware of” certain challenges he’d face in MLS ]

FC Dallas 1-2 Seattle SoundersFIRST LEG RECAP

Yet another road team that got out to an early lead, then coughed up a pair of late goals to give up a chunk of their first-leg advantage, but cling to the vital away goal as reason for optimism. FCD created counter-attacking chances at will in the first leg, until they decided to ease up and attempt to ride out the inevitable second-half surge. The center of the field was there for FCD to own, given Osvaldo Alonso’s absence, and for the first 45 minutes they carved the Sounders to pieces with quick counters straight up the gut. If Alonso is unable to go on Sunday (questionable – adductor), it should be more of the same and a handful of goals scored and/or set up by Fabian Castillo and Mauro Diaz.

The Sounders also missed Brad Evans, who has started or finished games in five or six different positions this season, along the back line. So much more fleet of foot than Zach Scott, Evans provides a mobile partner to Chad Marshall’s hulking aerial presence. Without either one of Alonso or Evans, the Sounders might as well roll out of red carpet down the center of the field to usher Castillo and Diaz in on goal.

[ MORE: Team of the Week — Stars of the MLS Cup Playoffs (so far) ]

Vancouver Whitecaps 0-0 Portland TimbersFIRST LEG RECAP

We learned nothing from the first leg. The Timbers are pleased to be the only team to have not conceded an away goal, the Whitecaps are pleased to take the series home with everything still to play for, and any of us who watched this game hate soccer a little bit more now than we did before kickoff of the first leg for having watched it.

Darlington Nagbe has finally found a home as a central midfield, though this revelation has been occurring for the better part of a month now. He’s truly a handful when he’s allowed to get on the ball north of 50 times a game, as was the case in the first leg. There’s no better dribbler in tight spaces than Nagbe in all of MLS, and the crowds of defenders he routinely attracts opens up so much space for the likes of Diego Valeri, Rodney Wallace and Lucas Melano. It’s far from too late for Nagbe to have his breakout party in 2015, but thinking about him running the show next March will have Timbers fans feeling excited all winter long.